THE PERSIAN ENCOUNTER – by Patricia and Xanjaa
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Disclaimers in Prologue
CHAPTER 12 – Know Thine Enemy
They'd been tracking the red army for over five candle marks. The further east they rode, the hotter it had become. After leaving the cool mountains behind, empty barren land lay before them for as far as the eye could see. Not a tree had gained a foothold in the inhospitable environment.
As they had been exposed to the relentless sun for some time, Xena called a halt and ordered everyone to don the robes and head coverings over the skimpy Amazon leathers. The relief from the blazing sun was immediate.
Ephiny had voiced her opinion that in such hostile conditions they'd soon run out of water. Adara's worth as a member of the raiding party became evident as she directed them to hidden springs along the way.
It was nearing night fall when the trail they followed took a sharp turn eastward directly into the desert. With Gabrielle riding at her side, Xena led the small band of women. Her keenly honed night vision made following the army child's play. The fact that they'd done nothing to disguise their route indicated an arrogance that Xena hoped to exploit.
"We don't want to turn east. I know where we're headed, Xena," Adara said as her horse came abreast of the warrior and queen.
Xena looked over at the eastern Amazon. She could hardly believe the transformation of the woman. In a matter of candle marks, she'd gone from tentative grieving widow always on the verge of tears, to competent warrior whose face gave no sign of emotion.
"Where?" Xena asked.
"Just ahead are sandstone cliffs. Below them is the desert floor. It's where we celebrate our spring rituals. It's an excellent place to house an army. There is much space on the desert floor and no way to come directly over the cliffs without being seen. And there is water, several good springs in fact. And I know more than one way down."
Staring into the distance, Xena asked, "How far ahead?"
"Not too far; less than a mile."
"What about cover?"
"There's good cover on the cliffs above, but we'll need to be silent when we're close. They'll be able to hear us if they're camped directly below the cliffs. We can set up an outpost just over there. There's a small spring and plenty of rocks and crevices to conceal us." She pointed further south to a rocky outcropping.
"Okay." Xena raised her hand calling a stop.
When all the women were gathered around, Xena related what Adara had told her. Then she added, "I'm taking Adara to check out the army. The rest of you set up a cold camp over in those boulders."
Pony cast a discontented look at Xena, clearly hurt to be excluded, but said nothing.
Appearing to take no notice of Pony, Xena rode off with Adara toward the cliffs. They rode at a slow pace maintaining silence. When they were about a hundred yards from the precipice, Adara pulled up on Mahtab's reins and dismounted. She waited silently until Xena had also dismounted and had moved closer before she spoke.
"We'll leave the horses here."
After bending to put a loose hobble on Mahtab to prevent the grey horse from following her, Adara then stood and looked expectantly at Xena.
With Argo, it was only necessary to let the intelligent animal know what was expected of her.
"Stay with Mahtab, girl."
With a nod to Adara that she was ready, the two women moved quickly toward the cliffs. Flattening themselves to the hard earth when they reached the edge, they peered out over the army encampment below. Both women stifled groans when they saw the size of the force. Tents and evening cook fires spread out for a great distance.
"Must be several hundred of them," Xena commented in a hushed breath. "Great place for an army camp too; sheer cliffs on this side, so they only need to defend from the east."
Fluttering in the light evening breeze was their military banner. The army's
banner, bearing sinister images of red scorpions racing across a field of black,
left no doubt as to the purpose of this army. They meant to move with stealth,
strike fast, and kill with venom. It was an army of death.
Suspended from a tall pole, the flag flew over a large opulent tent in the center of the encampment. It reminded Xena of the lavish pavilions she'd seen some of the nomads use, colorful with streamers and gleaming metal coat of arms near the tent flap. Clearly this was the headquarters of their leader, as all other lodgings paled by comparison in both size and richness.
Xena's eyes moved over the tableau below her assessing the enemy's strength and weaknesses. Unfortunately, she didn't immediately see many of those. Finally, near the southern boundary she spotted a large enclosure made of wooden poles driven into the sand. It looked like what it was; a jail for holding prisoners. It was also the first positive sight she'd seen, as its proximity to the edge of camp might make it possible to communicate with the captives without being caught.
Lastly, she saw a large open area, near the slave pen. The ground was beaten into a smooth flat ring. It was discolored and darker than the surrounding sand. It looked to Xena like blood had been spilled there. She understood the military mentality, the need to make an example of misbehaving soldiers or captives. She'd also seen such a spot used for sport, where two or more soldiers faced off to show off their fighting skills or worse, where prisoners were tormented and killed for entertainment.
She was certain she was looking at just such an area and it sickened her that some of these women may have died on that spot. Her suspicions of the area's multiple uses were confirmed when she spotted two stout posts with hanging leather restraints near one edge of the circle.
Dragging her attention back to the cliff they lay on, Xena asked herself, "How in Hades did they get down there?"
"There are only two trails near here wide enough for horses and gear, Xena." Adara whispered back.
"And those will be heavily guarded; so there goes the element of surprise." Xena quietly observed.
Adara smiled at her companion. "Not necessarily. Follow me," she said.
Still on their stomachs, they backed away from the cliff before they stood. Adara signaled for Xena to follow as she led them south along the high drop-off. Hunched over in their white desert attire, they were hard to see in the moon light.
After jogging for a quarter of a mile, she pulled to a stop near a small non-descript crevice. A rider passing this spot would never even think to stop and examine this small crack in the rocks. Both women again approached the cliff's edge on their bellies.
Peeking over the side, they noted they were positioned just at the southern perimeter of the base. Xena smiled placing her hand on Adara's shoulder to get her attention.
"Is this the way down?"
"Yes, it's only narrow here at the top; wide enough for one woman at a time. About ten feet down there's a wide flat area and a depression in the stone wall. It's not quite a cave, but from below it's virtually invisible. Seven women could easily take refuge there. And there's lots of tumbled boulders and rock to hide a small invading force as they climbed down. No one knows of this secret passage, except the women in my tribe. Follow me."
Quickly, Adara slid over the rim feet first and out of sight. Drawing her breast dagger, Xena followed. She wasn't so sure that the way was undiscovered. However, once in the crevice, she placed the knife between her teeth, needing both hands and feet to lower herself down the narrow shoot formed by the fissure in the rocks. Within a short way, her feet dangled free and she heard Adara whisper.
"It's only a foot. You can drop."
With no more hesitation, Xena let go, landing with a small thump next to the eastern woman. She remained stooped over slightly as the ceiling in the small depression was slightly lower than her head. Xena looked around with approval. The rubble from the landslide that had created the depression provided a natural barrier from prying eyes below.
"Yes, this is perfect. I wonder why they haven't discovered this and posted a guard. If I was running this operation, I sure would have," she commented to the Amazon woman.
"Many times Xena, men will underestimate the skills and strength of a woman. They think because most men wouldn't fit through there, it's not worth their trouble. I doubt they even thought to look in the first place." Adara said and then continued.
"As you can see, from here it's a short way to the bottom. If there's a sentry down there, we'll see him before he sees us. Shall we take a closer look? Maybe we can see the prisoners better." Adara said as she looked longingly toward the captives in the pen hoping for a glimpse of one of her tribal sisters.
From their vantage point only one woman was visible moving about the inside edge of the pen, as the others hunched over their evening meal. To Adara's eyes, the pacing woman looked like a caged animal. Adara didn't recognize the woman, but knew it wasn't a member of her tribe.
As she watched, a smaller dark woman came to the uneasy one, touching her arm, seeming to plead with her. It was too far away to hear their words. Finally, the smaller woman must have convinced the other to come back to the group, because she shrugged lowering her shoulders in defeat and allowed the smaller woman to lead her away from the fence.
"No, there's too much activity in the camp right now. We'll come back later when things have settled in for the night. Let's get back to the others now and let them know what we've found."
With a sigh of regret, Adara nodded her assent. She went to stand under the fissure and waited for Xena, who cupped her hands into a step for the eastern woman. Pushing herself up, Adara grabbed the rocky face on both sides and scrambled to the surface. Xena's greater height allowed her to follow unaided.
Quickly and quietly, they returned to their horses and rode back to the others.
Just as Adara had promised, the boulders provided perfect cover for the Amazons to set up camp. In no time, their meager outpost was ready. Ephiny took charge, asking the women gathered to take inventory of their new supplies.
Despondent and needing to be alone, Pony settled near the entrance to their hideout, waiting for the scouts to return. Seeing the woman looking so lost and alone, Gabrielle couldn't help but go to her.
"Hi Pony." She said by way of opening a conversation.
"My Queen," was the terse response.
Oh great another stoic warrior. Why do I always have to deal with the ones who hate to talk, she asked herself. "Pony please, we've been traveling together for too long to stand on ceremony."
Sighing, Pony looked at her queen and offered an olive branch. "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I guess I'm just a little worried." Then just as quickly she faced back toward the empty desert night.
Gabrielle tried again. "I know you care very much for Adara…"
Before she could finish her thought, Pony spun around, her anger evident. "What did Xena say to you? I knew she couldn't keep her mouth shut."
"Pony, she didn't say anything. It's not really a secret from any of us that you'd die for Adara. It's clear by the way you look after her."
"Great, now everyone knows what a fool I am."
"No one thinks anything of the kind. It's not foolish to fall in love. I understand what you're feeling. And I also know Xena is not trying to hurt you or put Adara in undue danger. She's trying to find a balance. If there are any survivors, they need our help sooner rather than later."
Blowing out a huge frustrated breath, Pony relented. "I know it, Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I can't seem to help but worry about her… and I,… I'd just like for it all to go away."
Putting a comforting hand on the weapons mistress's arm, the queen replied, "Don't we all? Don't we all?"
The scouting party returned in less than a candle mark. By the pained looks on their faces it was clear the news was not good. After dismounting, they joined the others and Xena explained the circumstances.
"Well, it's a good news and bad news situation. We took only a cursory look before coming back here, but we were able to pick out a large pen where thirty or more women are housed. Based on what Adara saw the night of the attack, there are more women than were taken from her village. Fortunately, the cage is near the southern boundary, so with some luck and stealth, we'll be able to get close."
She took a breath before delivering the bad news.
"On the down side, it's a big army, bigger than I expected. Hard to tell at night how many soldiers but their cook fires spread out over the desert for quite a distance; there're a few hundred fighters, at least. We'll know more in the morning.
"A few hundred…" Noalani gasped. It was all she could think to say, the disbelief was evident in her tone. The others nodded their heads in silent agreement as the fear and futility overwhelmed them.
Immediately, Gabrielle stepped in to bolster their spirits. "We're Amazons. Yes, the tasks ahead of us are formidable and the odds against us are overwhelming but we're going to do this and we'll win. Do you understand?" She looked at them sternly, taking hold of each woman's eyes until every one of them had seen the fire and determination in their queen's face.
Each woman wore an expression of shame on her face. They were Amazons born and bred; taught from childhood to be fearless in their harsh world. To die in the defense of an Amazon sister was the highest glory.
From the start of this journey, they had dispensed with protocol at Gabrielle's request, but now as a group they responded as one to their queen's call to honor by striking their chests with closed fists. It was Noalani who replied.
"Forgive me my queen. I will gladly give my life if needed to defeat this menace." She knelt on one knee before Gabrielle with her head bent in supplication.
Placing her hand on the shoulder of the kneeling woman, Gabrielle lifted her to her feet before responding.
"As I've said at the beginning of this mission, we are equals here. I am your queen yes, but here and now I am also your friend. My name is Gabrielle and you will all honor me by addressing me as a friend, by using my name." She used virtually the same words she had spoken their first night on the trail, when one too many 'my queen' had set her teeth on edge.
Continuing in a softer tone, she said, "I feel fear too. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Real courage is doing what we have to in the face of our fears. It is that kind of courage that gives us an edge that these mercenaries do not have."
She paused for breath smiling with affection on these brave young women before continuing. "All right, on this mission, Xena is our leader, so let's hear what she has in mind."
When each woman acknowledged Gabrielle's words with a nod, the queen looked to her lover with absolute confidence.
"Okay, Xena, what's the plan?"
Six heads turned toward the stalwart warrior waiting for Xena to unfold her plan. Each one was quiet, their fears subjugated to their Amazon pride.
Ever the mistress of the blank but self-assured expression, Xena exuded confidence even though she knew she had no plan. She had random thoughts and pieces floating around in her head. It was typical warrior princess strategy, find the enemy and design a plan on the fly.
She'd been thinking of options while traveling over the mountains, but still needed too much information. They needed to scout the layout of the Red Scorpion Army encampment more thoroughly and observe them in the light of day to determine any weaknesses. She wanted confirmation from highly trained warriors like Ephiny, Solari and Pony. Pony's assessment especially, would be invaluable, assuming she could buckle down and get past her need to protect the beautiful easterner.
"We need more weapons and more soldiers. Seven women won't stop this army, no matter how talented you are." Xena explained the reality of the situation to them. "That doesn't mean we won't try. It just means we need…"
"I can help," Adara interrupted. "I know something of the desert peoples. We've traded with them for many years. I can go to them and ask for their aid."
"Adara, how well do you know them? Do you really think they'll help you?"
"Tynet is…" Adara caught herself. "Tynet was known all across the desert. She trained magnificent horses and all the desert chieftains wanted her highly trained mares and stallions. Animals responded to her command and touch. She never resorted to a whip and the desert people admired that. She took great care with her horses and made sure those she traded with respected them the same way she did. I traveled with her on many trading missions and came to know many of the tribal chiefs."
Listening intently, the warrior was dumbfounded. The desert tribes were well known for keeping their horses' blood lines pure, only trading animals with their own people. How I would have loved to have met this woman, she thought in awe of Tynet's many skills.
Incredulous, Xena asked, "Tynet traded horses with the desert chiefs?"
"Yes," the golden eyed woman responded. "Tynet traded her horses with the leaders of several of the most powerful tribes. The chiefs never sold their horses outside the tribe. It was forbidden. Their horses were well cared for and sometimes bred with a special mare or stallion belonging to another tribe. The Chieftains kept detailed records of all their horses and could go back through the lines for generation upon generation. But they never traded horses outside the tribes, until they met Tynet."
The rest of the women were wrapped up in the telling as she continued her story, "When we were first joined, Tynet found a young colt wandering in the desert. She raised him with her gentle hand and trained him into a prized stallion. He was so perfect in every way. The stallion responded to her every command and wish. He was the most beautiful and fastest horse in our herd.
"We rode into the desert looking for Kadar, leader of one of the most powerful desert tribes, to sell some of her horses. His warriors found us and brought us to his tent. Kadar recognized the bloodlines of the colt. He told Tynet this was one of the lost sons of his best breeding mare who had died two winters before in a bad storm. They thought both the mare and the colt had been lost in the storm.
"Tynet was torn. She didn't want to part with him, but she knew the bloodlines of our own horses needed to be strengthened with those of the Arabians, so she made a gallant sacrifice and gave the horse to Kadar. He gave her in return a pregnant mare for our own herd. Forever after this, she was the only person the desert tribes would trade horses with outside their own peoples. She learned how to keep records of all her horses the same way they did."
"Just as the chieftains did, Tynet could always go back to her records and know any one of her horses' history; sire, mare, grandparents and who she had traded an animal to." Adara continued, her yellow eyes glowing and her high cheekbones flushed as she relived the beautiful memories of her time with Tynet.
Pony watched her from under heavy lids. She couldn't help but admire Adara's fire and she understood something more of the magnificence that was her mate.
Xena interrupted the reverie of both women with a succinct, "Do you know how to find this Kadar?"
"Yes, I think so. If I'm right I can reach their encampment in eight or nine candle marks. Maybe less if Mahtab is up to it."
"Does Kadar have any influence with the other chieftains?"
"His name means Powerful One. He's a great leader among the desert tribes."
"Will he send his soldiers? Could you convince him?" The words tumbled out as Xena saw a ray of hope for the small group of seven women.
"When I tell him what has happened and that Tynet was killed, I believe he will help." Adara responded quickly.
Knowing she was pushing, Xena asked the impossible of this incredible Amazon. "How soon can you ride? Time is of the essence."
"I'll leave at once. I should be there by dawn."
"Then go. We need Kadar's and the chieftains' help." Xena said as Adara moved to Mathab's side preparing to mount.
"Xena, I think my mother, Isaura, was one of the prisoners taken. If you get to her, please tell her, her grandchildren are safe." Adara added.
"I will," Xena replied squeezing her shoulder.
"Thank you." Adara was a woman with a mission and proclaimed, "I'll return before the moon is high in two days. Now, I need to ride."
"Wait!" The word was out before Pony could stop it. "You're going now, tonight, when you've been in the saddle all day? Your horse needs rest."
"Mathab is an Arabian. She can run for days. But tonight, I'll pace her."
"Please, at least let me go with you." Pony's voice was frantic with worry.
Adara placed her hand on Pony's arm seeking to calm her. "This is something I can do for all of us. The night is the best time to cross the desert sands." She stopped, gracing Pony with a warm heartfelt smile before continuing, "And you, my friend, are needed here."
Before Pony could protest further, Adara swung up into the saddle. With an Amazon salute to the other's she rode out into the night. Stunned, Pony stared after her.
Clapping a hand on Pony's shoulder, Xena tried to reassure her. "She'll be all right. She knows the desert and these people."
Pulling the woman's attention to the job at hand, Xena said, "I need your help, Pony. Are you with me?"
Forcing her eyes from the desert, Pony looked at Xena, nodding her understanding.
"We need to get to the prisoners and see if they can fight. If so, we'll need to supply them with weapons just before our attack. Our only hope is surprise. I need more information before we can plan that. You, Solari and I are going on a little reconnaissance mission."
Turning back to the other three, she continued. "Ultimately, we're going to need lots of arrows tipped with Greek fire, but we should have at least a day to make 'em before Adara returns. Eph, you and Noalani get started on that. Gabrielle, try to get some sleep. You and I have a date with a goddess in the morning." She gave her lover a smile before continuing.
"You all know what we need to do, let's get to it." Xena finished and spun on her heel with Pony and Solari hurrying to keep up.
The three women left behind watched the warriors until the night swallowed them up and then turned to their task. Each deep in thought, they settled down together to work. Doing anything in preparation to defeat this enemy was like a balm after so many days of riding and not knowing what they faced. Each woman knew she was hand picked for this mission, and whatever the outcome, they were Amazons and they would be proud to die as Amazons.
* * * * *
CHAPTER 13 – Adara Rallies the Desert Tribes
Adara had circled well south of the encampment. Finally, a mile further, she reached another trail leading off the plateau. The dark skinned woman guided the gray Arabian mare from the sandstone cliffs. She watched the trail as the horse began its descent in the moonlight, careful not to dislodge loose rocks. Even at this distance sounds carried and could signal the Red Army camped below that an intruder was near. She knew stealth and silence were essential and had full confidence that the sure-footed Mahtab would not signal one of the enemy's horses as she guardedly and precisely made her way to the desert floor.
She knew the large pen where women prisoners were held was located on the south perimeter. She pondered the information that had restored a small measure of hope in her heart. Maybe – just maybe, she survived, she thought wistfully. As quickly as the thought materialized it dissipated. Pull yourself together, dammit, she angrily told herself, you saw that huge pile of ashes. You saw her fall.
Her sudden anger prodded her into action. She realized she was not doing herself any good trying to steal into the camp alone and she could potentially do more harm to the plan. Besides, she'd been given a mission to bring in the desert tribes. She had to get help quickly so, leaving her thoughts behind, she shifted her weight, nudging the mare with her knee and moved cautiously southward into the Persian desert away from the women's pen.
As soon as she put some distance between herself and the torch lights of the army encampment she felt safer. Her trail had not been seen. She dug her heels into the horse's flanks, leaned over and said to the mare, "Run Mahtab, run like the wind tonight, girl!"
The horse, sensing the woman's intent, accelerated and sped across the sands. Adara pulled her head cloth tighter around her face, leaving only a narrow slit open across her eyes. Riding at night was far better for both she and the horse. They'd make much better time in the cooler air. She had to reach Kadar's tribe by morning.
She rode on, aware of the enormity of her mission and yet mindful of the condition of the horse that had already brought her such a great distance. She didn't want to push the mare too hard, but she knew time was the enemy. Every so often she'd lean over the long gray neck and whisper encouragement to the mare. "Tynet named you well, didn't she, Mahtab? Run in the moonlight, Moonlight! Run to your Arabian sire like our very lives depend on it."
She'd been riding steadily as the moon, marking her time, moved across a quarter of the wide open black sky. She looked in the distance for the small oasis that she remembered was hidden in a small outcropping. She and Tynet had stopped at this oasis many times in their past travels with their herds so she had a good idea where it was located. It wasn't hard to distinguish the outline of the oasis' outcropping in the night light as both she and Mahtab wearily made their way towards the welcomed refreshment of the water hole.
"It won't be too much longer, girl" she said as she nuzzled the horse's face, grateful for the company of the mare. She walked the horse a bit, cooling her down before allowing her to drink any water.
She knelt beside the cool water refilling her water skins and drinking her fill alongside the horse. She watched Mahtab carefully so she didn't drink too much water or too quickly. Stretching her weary body, she looked out across the blackness of the desert sky, seeing the brilliant stars in the heavens over her head. We used to lay in each other's arms on these same warm sands after making love she thought. How many stars did we count my love? The memory of those nights ripped at her heart. By the Goddess, when will these sweet remembrances stop haunting me? She kicked a rock with her boot in disgust at her weakness, startling the mare.
"Let's go, Mahtab. We need to ride on."
She placed the water skins over the horse's back and mounted her in one leap. "Let's go." She said, softly kneeing the horse in the direction of the tribal lands.
* * * * * *
At dawn the following morning, she saw an encampment in the distance. Large tents were visibly jutting out above the flat plains of the desert. She recognized the brilliant yellow standard of Kadar flapping in the already warm breeze over the largest of the tents. She pushed the weary horse a bit more begging her for another gallop where she knew food and rest would greet them. Horse and rider were exhausted from the punishing ride but Mahtab sensing her mistress's rising spirit, raced forward towards the distant landmark.
A cloud of dust appearing on the horizon alerted the tribal sentries. They peered into the distance as the form of a horse and rider began to take shape. The older of the guards directed one man to go inform Kadar, while he and the third sentry mounted their horses to meet the newcomer. They rode out, passing the pyramid shaped stones that marked their tribal boundaries.
As they came closer to the rider one sentry said, "It looks like the Amazon horsewoman."
"It can't be the Amazon horsewoman." The old sentry replied with authority. "She would never ride her horses like that."
The horse's heaving flanks and heavily lathered body were mute testimony to the hard ride the two had endured. The rider could barely be seen under the desert robes, her upper body hugging the horse's neck. Adara looked up as Mahtab changed her speed, and saw the two approaching tribesmen on horseback. She pulled back reining in the horse to a canter.
The tribesmen circled her, no longer sure who this rider was. Adara recognized the older of the two, a trusted long time warrior in service to Kadar.
"Abdul Hadi?" she said, questioning his name.
"Who are you that know my name?" answered the sentry still not able to see the woman's face.
"I am Adara of the Caucus Amazon tribe." Answered the woman, as she removed the al amira desert scarf from around her face.
"Adara? Is it you?"
"Yes, it's me. Please, I need to see Kadar right away."
"Marhaba (hello), Bara-kul-lah (May Allah bless you)" he said not forgetting his manners.
"As-salamu' alaikum" (Peace be upon you) she responded properly almost forgetting her own manners with the desert tribes.
"You've been riding hard. Where is your hearth-mate? Where is Tynet? Is something wrong?" It was evident to the older man that something was indeed wrong. The warrior horsewoman would never have ridden her horse half to death like this and by the looks of this one, something dire had happened.
"Please Abdul Hadi, I need to see Kadar now." She said imploring the older man.
"Come, I'll take you. But we walk. The mare needs to be rested and it seems to me you could use a rest yourself, sadik (friend.)"
"There's no time. We have to hurry."
"There's always time, ukhtee (my sister). You need to recover your strength, as does your mare. Kadar will insist upon it." The tall thin Bedouin explained to the woman. He knew the protocol of the desert tribes and there would be no amount of rushing without the proper exchange of greetings and blessings and time for any guest to be looked after, pampered and fed. Then business would be discussed.
"You don't understand…"
"Shhh" he interrupted her. "Bis-millah (in the name of Allah) all will be well."
She realized it was hopeless to argue with the older man. The walk will revive both of us, she reasoned, patting Mahtab's damp neck, and then I can explain everything to Kadar when I see him. They walked the horses in silence towards the bright tents in the distance as the morning sun rose higher in the sky heating the sands.
* * * * *
The chief and his trusted senior clansmen had just been served the morning meal by the women of the tribe when the third sentry who had been on patrol in the desert rode directly to the opening of Kadar's tent. The commotion and noise alerted those in the tent immediately.
"What can be so ominous that you disturb your leader in this fashion?" said Ikram, the wife of Kadar as she intercepted the rider outside. "Have you lost your senses that you approach his tent on horseback in this manner?"
The rider leaped from the stallion, bowing and apologizing to the woman. "Please, Muhsanah, I am to relay a message from Abdul Hadi to the all powerful one."
"What message?" she asked, sure there was no urgency that would require disturbing her husband's morning meal with his advisors.
"A rider approaches" he said breathlessly, "Abdul Hadi has gone out to meet him." The young sentry would learn later that it was a woman who accompanied Adbul Hadi to the Sheik's tent.
"For this, you disturb your lord as he breaks the night fasting? You should be beaten with a cane for this insult." The woman pronounced.
"But, Um…" He used the word for mother, honoring the woman's place of honor in the tribe as he was interrupted by the great chieftain.
"What is it Ikram? Who disturbs my morning?" Kadar's deep voice resonated from inside the tent before his huge form appeared, filling the opening. He pushed the flap back and stood with his legs wide apart and his hands on his hips. His long wild salt and pepper hair was barely contained by his kufiyya (headgear) cloth. His hair escaped from the confines of the cloth and surrounded his face like a frame. The chieftain was formidable and held supreme reign over the various tribes by the force of his charisma and power.
The young man, awed by the sight of the great Chieftain, was unsure of what he should have said or done. He touched his chest and forehead with his thumb and index finger, bowing low to his leader.
"Speak up, ibn (son), what is so urgent?" The Chieftain demanded his thick mustache waving like a pendant over his white teeth as he spoke.
The sentry pointed back towards the direction he had come. "A rider… a rider approaches from the desert, riding hard."
"Yes, what of it?"
"Abdul Hadi …." He stumbled and stuttered, "He went out to meet him. He told me…. he told me to come…. He told me to alert you."
"You have," Bellowed the Chieftain dismissing the young man. "If Abdul Hadi is on patrol then why should I have any concern over a single rider?" He asked the young man.
The boy hung his head, "Forgive me, Imam, for the disturbance… I, uhmmm…"
The great leader grumbled and turned back inside the tent his intent clear that he was no longer interested in what the boy had to say and that he had every intention of eating his meal undisturbed.
Ikram, who had been standing next to the sentry, took command of the situation as her husband went inside the tent. "Go and get yourself something to eat, boy. And see to your horse." She directed him. She didn't scold him further, allowing him to save face in front of all those who had witnessed the interchange with Kadar.
* * * *
Kadar strode back inside to reclaim his morning meal. Some of the tribal women continued to serve and attend to his various deputies, bringing fruits and flat breads and cheeses and hot tea to the men. Kadar had called the session with his deputies to discuss what they had been hearing about a renegade army terrorizing and laying waste to the western and northern desert lands.
"Imam, is there trouble?" His long time friend and trusted advisor Alim asked.
"No! It seems however that a single rider has stirred up my sentries."
"We're all nervous these days, Kadar. The news from the north is not good. We all wonder when our own tribes might become engaged with this army."
"Hasbu-nallah" (May Allah save us) was softly echoed by the other deputies in the tent.
The tent flap opened once more allowing the desert heat to flood the interior again.
"What now?" questioned the Imam.
Ikram approached her husband. She was an ample woman, equal to the man whose tent she shared. She was dark skinned like the members of her tribe with dark brown eyes and long dark hair, held in check under a tribal head cloth marked with her husband's colors. She barely reached his shoulder in height, but her personal magnetism knew no bounds. She was an equal force with Kadar and she was well respected by both the men and women of the tribe.
She bent over her husband and whispered in his ear, "Abdul Hadi has arrived with the rider. You need to come out again."
"Can a man not eat his morning meal and confer with his deputies without these incessant interruptions, Ikram?"
"Come outside, Kadar! Now!" she whispered forcefully, fixing him with an intense look.
The Chieftain looked at his wife and grumbled his acquiescence. He too respected and loved this stout woman and he knew she would not interrupt him unnecessarily. "Please excuse me" he said to his deputies and followed her back outside.
Abdul Hadi walked towards the Sheik's tent, leading a woman on a gray mare. He saw the sheik emerge from the tent and continued his approach.
"What have we here Akhee (my brother)?" Said the Imam.
"The amazon horsewoman's mate, Adara, my Lord." The old sentry responded as he bowed before the Chief touching his heart and mouth and forehead with his thumb and index finger in the tribal sign of respect.
"Ahlan, Adara, bara-kul-lah!" (Welcome, Adara, May Allah bless you!) The sheik said. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit? And where is Tynet?"
"Bara-kul-lah!" Adara responded correctly. "My Lord Kadar, I need your help. My village has been attacked by a savage horde and ….." She began speaking rapidly to the tribal leader.
"Tut tut" said the Chieftain. "Come inside out of the hot sun, ukhtee" he said, using the same word for sister, that Abdul Hadi had used in addressing the woman. "You must be tired from your long ride and in need of refreshment. Please, please, go with Ikram and then join me in my tent. We will talk about all your troubles when you are rested and refreshed, yes? Ikram?"
"Of course my Lord" said his wife in response. "Come Adara, you look near exhausted. Let me take you to the woman's tent and make you comfortable."
"Sheik Kadar, there's no time. Please" she begged, anxious to plead her case to the tribal leader.
"Ikram?" he turned to his wife. He clearly expected that Ikram would take the young woman to the tent of the women, make her comfortable, feed her and rest her. Then later he would entertain her story with his trusted council.
"Come ibna (daughter)" said Ikram "Let us go! You need to rest and be fed. We have many wonderful fruits for you to enjoy."
"Kadar, please, you must help us. My village has been destroyed and only a handful of women survived. An awful menace sweeps the lands to the north, burning, torching and murdering. We need the help of the desert tribes…"
"Go with Ikram to the women, Adara!" It was a command, the sheik's expression piercing, as he interrupted her words.
Ikram, knew her husband must be obeyed on this issue so gently ushered the weary woman away from the sheik. "Come ibna! Come! Later you will talk with him. For now, let us care for you in the maharama (the tent of the women)."
Adara realized it was hopeless. These tribes had great respect for the dangers and hardships inherent in the desert and meeting other tribes or people was a noteworthy event. Their culture was justly known for its hospitality and generosity as honored guests were welcomed and then nourished with food, hot spiced teas and music. She had to accept their conventions or by her anxious behavior, insult the chieftain, so she sadly allowed herself to be led away towards the maharama.
* * * *
The maharama was aptly named 'the place of the women.' It was one of the largest tents in an encampment and only women were allowed inside. At the entrance doorway, multicolored tassels signifying the colors of the imam adorned the tent. It was festively decorated inside with wall hangings made of golden threads and small jewels. Hand woven rugs of varying sizes in colors of red and blue and brown were scattered across the floor of the tent. Cushions and pillows, brilliant with natural dyes, were placed on the rugs throughout the interior. The tribal leader's wife reigned supreme in the maharama and her rug, the largest in the room, was placed at a vantage position to receive all guests.
Ushering the beautiful Amazon into the huge women's tent, Ikram called out, "Muhsanat (chaste and virtuous women) we have a guest!"
From all corners of the tent, conversation stopped as the women turned to look at the visitor. Their social graces returned instantly as Adara was greeted according to their custom.
"Ahlan (welcome), As-salamu' alaikum (peace be upon you)" they said one by one.
"Shukran (thank you)" Adara responded.
"Come, come" said Ikram, her hand on the back of the young woman as she maneuvered her towards the beautiful large red and black hand-woven rug on the far side of the tent. The brightly colored pillows were spaced all across the rug for comfort when sitting. Ikram gathered several of them and beckoned the woman, "Come and sit."
"Ma ismok? (What is your name?)" A young woman asked.
"Where are your manners, girl? Let the woman be made comfortable and fed." The Sheik's wife scolded. "Bring wet cloths so she can remove the desert grime from her face. And you," she pointed to another, "Bring food!" She barked orders to the gathered women, assigning more menial jobs to the younger ones.
"It's alright, Um, I'm not hungry." Adara used the formal word for mother, to reply to Ikram.
"You are simply tired child, your hunger will return." She said gently, followed by a stern, "Where is the food?" to the younger woman. Hospitality demanded that food be served to visitors quickly as a sign of honor and respect and these young girls were not acting quickly enough in her opinion.
A very young woman ran towards Ikram, carrying warm damp cloths on a silver inlaid leather tray and a brass basin of hot water for the young woman to wash herself.
Adara did what was expected and used the cloths and water to wipe her face and hands and clean herself. Ikram nodded her approval.
Another woman appeared carrying a large urn with steaming spiced tea. She knelt beside the visitor and poured the hot cardamom tea into a cup and with a slight bow, placed it into the hands of their guest.
"Shukran (thank you)" Adara responded, bowing back to the woman.
"Drink!" Ikram said. "You'll feel better."
Someone lit an incense burner as platters of food arrived which were placed on a separate rug in front of their guest. The women gathered around the Amazon anxious for news of the outside world, yet mindful of their manners, especially with Ikram watching them. Food was served to the visitor first and then passed around to the older women in rank first then down to the youngest. The chatter of women's voices and laughter filled the air as the tribal women devoted themselves to Adara's comfort.
The Amazon allowed herself to be honored and cared for by these women, accepting their hospitality and generosity, if only for a short time. She knew the dangers she'd left behind, and yet in the company of these women, she indulged herself, grateful not to think of what still lay on the horizon. For now, she tried to forget the Red Army, tried to forget she'd lost the woman who held her heart, tried to forget everything she'd experienced since the summer solstice.
The women talked of family life, and of their children, of who was courting whom and who was sure to be wed by the next season. They gossiped and laughed in the way women do. Their talk soon turned with excitement to the upcoming gathering of the desert tribes at the summer tribal reunion. This gathering was held every summer and all the tribes rejoined their families for two quarters of a moon's cycle. It was a time of great celebration and festivity.
"When is your sister arriving, Ikram?" one of the women asked.
"She's late. I expected her ashira (tribe) before now. She sent word with the last caravan that crossed our territories to tell me she would come early this year for the festival. Perhaps they took a different route but I am getting concerned. I've asked Abdul Hadi's men to keep watch for her ashira."
Ikram, ever observant and mindful of her duties as head of the maharama, watched her guest intently for any sign of want or need. She saw a dark veil move over the beautiful woman's golden eyes and a deep sorrow descend on her face. She knew intuitively something terrible had happened to her. The woman had never come to the desert tribes before without her hearth-mate and the manner in which she rode into their camp told her a great tragedy had befallen her. This is why she asks for help from Kadar she thought to herself. Whatever it is, Kadar and the rest of the tribes must help this woman.
She got up from her pillow commanding the attention of all the women in the tent at once and pointed to the group of younger women who sat to the side, "All of you, out now. It's time for the elders to talk."
There was grumbling from those being sent out from the tent, but Ikram's longest and dearest friend, Hala, clapped her hands together and began herding the youngsters towards the exit. Hala was the wife of Alim and the four were trusted and dear friends and confidants for seasons and seasons since their tribes first came together.
"Come, you heard Ikram." She said. "It's time for the older women to sit in council. You may return later." She steered them all outside suggesting they go attend to their chores of gardening, cooking or watching the herds.
As she returned inside the tent she heard Ikram ask the beautiful young woman, "What has happened, Adara. You may speak freely with us."
The Amazon looked up into the dark brown open and trusting eyes. She'd spent time in the past in this same tent with these same women as Tynet met with Kadar and his deputies bargaining over the sale of their horses. They'd spent many nights talking together, telling stories and laughing together in sweet sisterhood. She felt a duty to tell them her story, yet she knew the heartbreaking agony it would bring to Ikram when the tribeswoman found out that members of her own family had been butchered and enslaved by the Red Army.
She began her story at the beginning, telling them about the invasion by the huge beastlike men on horseback and the firebombing of her village. She related the story of Tynet's brave stand and her fall. She told them of her escape with their children and her travel to the western Amazon tribe.
The noontime sun baked down on the tent as she continued the story. Water, teas, fruits and cakes were brought into the tent to refresh the women who listened intently to all she told them. She told them she had returned over the Caucus with only six other Amazon warriors who were intent on taking down an entire army.
She saved the story about Ikram's family for last dreading what she had to say to her host. She told the woman that during her night ride, she encountered a passing caravan of traders who told her a story of horror. They had passed the purposely laid out pyramid of stones that marked the boundaries and territories of the desert tribes. Many of the stone markers had blister marks of a great firestorm. They had wandered into the tribal boundaries and everything looked as though it had been scorched by fire, even the very sands. They didn't know what could have caused this devastation. There were huge piles of ashes and they could make out the bodies of camels.
The women listened in silent dismay. The rumors they'd been hearing with each passing caravan were being confirmed. Each new report indicated that a destructive force was moving closer and close to their borders.
Adara continued her story. There were no signs of life, though signs of a struggle. It appeared to the nomad leader that some might have had been taken into slavery as there was a long line of footprints in the soft ground that had been churned up by large horses. She told them that the leader had found some scraps of material. She reached into the pocket of her borque and pulled out the remnants of a scorched fabric and held it reverently for Ikram to see. The markings on the fabric were unmistakable. It was from Ikram's sister's tribe.
Time stopped inside the maharama, as Adara's news hung in the warm air. No one moved in the deathly stillness. Then a piercing anguished wail rose up from the big woman. She clutched at her face, screaming in despair as her tears flowed freely.
Hala jumped up and rushed to the side of her friend, holding her, and gently rocking the large form in her arms, while trying to contain her own grief. Allah have mercy, she thought to herself. The tall slender woman fixed Adara with a questioning look.
"You're sure? Do you know this to be true?" Hala asked the Amazon.
"I only learned of it during my ride last night when I stopped to rest my horse. I do believe the caravan leader, Hala. I've seen the destruction he described. I saw it happen to my own village. How can it not be true?" She held up the scorched fabric for the woman as if to prove her point.
"She's had horrible dreams and visions of her sister and her tribe," Hala said to Adara, looking sadly at the sobbing woman in her arms, "but she chose to put other meanings on what she saw. Second sight can be a difficult curse and a magical blessing."
"I am so sorry, Um" Adara said, gently touching the big woman's shoulder.
Ikram's loud wailing brought a gathering crowd to the outside of the maharama. Hala, seeing the throng, directed another woman to close the tent flaps while she dealt with the grief-stricken woman that she held carefully. She took some of Adara's unused cloths and bathed the face and eyes of her dear friend, pushing back the hair from her damp forehead.
"Shhh, shhhh, dear friend. Let us see what we can do, eh?" She continued to minister to her friend.
Under the gentle care of Hala, the big woman cried herself out. When her sobs turned to gasps for breath, the thin taller woman, kissed her forehead, comforting her friend by her love and her presence.
In time, she stopped crying and stared into space. She reflected on the dreams and visions she'd been having, recalling the horror that she'd seen. Yet, somewhere in all the dreams, she had a strong feeling that her sister was still alive. I'd know if you crossed over, Rida, she thought to herself. We cannot be closer and not know this about each other. Mother said she knew at your birth you were favored by Allah so gave you your name. I pray to Allah he continues to favor you.
The small prayer comforted her and she knew what she had to do. Breathing deeply, she gathered herself together, summoned and reclaimed her power, and faced Adara.
"You're sure?" she asked pointedly unaware that Hala had asked the Amazon the same question earlier.
"I can only tell you what the caravan nomads related to me, Um. I am so sorry."
"Come, we go to Kadar!" the Imam's wife said pulling herself out of Hala's embrace and lifting her ample body from the pillows. The women in the tent cleared a path as Ikram led them from the tent.
* * * * * *
email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org - Any feedback is welcome. Thank you for reading. To those who have replied already, thank you so much for your wonderful feedback and for liking the story. It's a pleasure for us to write for readers who still like the old-fashioned stories.
To Be Continued in Chapter 14
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